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Spying far worse in South Africa than the US

Americans are shocked and ­outraged at ­revelations that their government is vacuuming up information about their phone conversations and internet browsing habits, but compared to South Africans, they have little to worry about.

According to ­exposés by the Guardian and Washington Post over the past week, the US government's intelligence apparatus has "direct access" – or a close equivalent – to the systems of major internet service providers.

The National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters, stand accused of using that access in ways well beyond what is contemplated by the laws under which they operate.

As more details about the Prism programme have emerged, the seriousness of those concerns has been much disputed. But that has done little to stem the wave of outrage and political condemnation that has seriously shaken confidence in the entire administration of Barack Obama.

Americans, it seems, are not amused at the idea that their government can invade their communication privacy with neither due reason nor due process.

Which, as it happens, is very much the reality in South Africa.

Telecommunications specialist lawyer Mike Silber, who serves on various boards and bodies related to the communications industry, said South Africans faced a similar level of intrusive surveillance – possibly worse.

"We all know Rica [the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act] forced us to register our SIM cards a few years back," said Silber.

"It also requires us to identify ourselves for internet services. What most people outside the industry do not know is that Rica also deals with lawful interception. One element of lawful ­interception is so-called 'live' interception. This is where calls, emails, web sessions and other communication are forwarded to the Office of Interception Centres pursuant to a warrant so that the content of the communication is available."

Silber pointed out that under the provisions of Rica and with the infrastructure it established, the South African government has access on demand to metadata, or "communication-related information", which includes the numbers called and the duration of conversations.

"Our phone companies … are obliged to store exactly what Verizon in the US was being forced to store," he said.

Unlike in the US, where the NSA is supposedly expressly prohibited from using its reach to spy on US citizens, local provisions are expressly intended to be used by the government to spy on South Africans.

Though local legislation provides that the need for a warrant can be circumvented in some circumstances, not even that provision is honoured, according to a 2008 ministerial review on intelligence, which reportedly showed, Silber said, "total disregard by our intelligence services for democratic principles".

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author
Alistair Fairweather
Alistair is the founder of PlainSpeak, a technology consultancy based in Cape Town.

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